The other night storks flew over the city and someone shot at them. The shooting produced more shooting and soon the militia groups of the city were shooting -- some at the storks, some at one another and some at nothing in particular.At the same time, a real battle raged in the middle of the city but in the morning the outrage was about the killing of the storks. It is useless to complain about the killing of people.

Beirut is a city at war with itself. The eastern part of the city is Christian and the western part is mostly Moslem. And between the two sections is a no-man's land. Here the buildings are gutted, destroyed by artillery and heavy arms fire. There are no roofs and no walls and no top floors. Where there are, they are occupied by snipers.

In Beirut the radio tells what roads are open and what roads are closed -- where the snipers are operating. It is like the weather report. When it comes, drivers head for the available roads. The traffic is awful.

The other day we went from west to east. We took the usual roads and then we saw the highway was open. It is not usually open. But cars were going through and we followed. Our car was speeding and we missed the turnoff, suddenly it was the only car on the road.

"I'm scared," said the driver."

On either side were gutted buildings. We had to go about a half a mile through no-man's land. Every month in Lebanon something like 70 people die in this sort of situation -- 160 in February, a bad month. There wasn't a car on the road but us. The driver floored the accelerator.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat. I scanned the buildings for snipers. I looked for the sub-machine guns that are so common here. My eye travelled the roofs. But each building was a bombed-out warren. All of them windowless, all of them looking like high-rise caves.

I was scared. I thought about rolling up the window. Would that help? Should I take off my sunglasses for the same reason? Would they open up with rifles or with automatic weapons? With a rifle, you stand a chance. With an automatic weapons, there is no chance. This is what I thought anyway.

The little car, a Renault, press on. It seemed to take an eternity to go the half mile. Up ahead I could see cars crawling through the rubble. It was a checkpoint and I wondered if the soldiers there would be glad to see us or whether they would take one look at us and see nothing but storks. It was the Christian militia. They waved us through. We were in East Beirut. The shopping looked good.

Imagine Manhattan with, say the Upper East Side, blown away. Imagine Chicago with the area around the lake gutted.Imagine Beverly Hills leveled to the ground, the rest of L.A. standing and functioning. This is Beirut.

Imagine sand-bagged checkpoints along the roads and machine gun nests in the terraces of high-rise buildings. Imagine guns on the roofs and in the gardens and sticking out of windows. Imagine Christian militia and Lebanese army troops and internal security forces and the Syrian Army and the Palestine Liberation army and others. There are plenty.

Imagine all this and also imagine going out for a nice dinner at night. Imagine the ladies nicely dressed and the men looking Parisian.Imagine new cars and Cadillacs and signs in French and English. Imagine smart shops and good restaurants and very expensive hotels and, after the Moslem purity of Egypt, pornography and sexy movies and girlie magazines and women and men actually kissing on the street.

But imagine also that when you come into the airport the place bristles with guns, when you take a cab from the airport the driver has to stop at the gate so the security police can get your name. That way if you get kidnaped they know what cab you went off in.

Not that anyone can do anything. Not that there is a government. Not that the Israelis on their end and the Syrians on theirs and the PLO somewhere in the middle aren't pulling all the strings and not that every other person, it seems, hasn't a sub-machine gun. At night it is dangerous to go out in most areas.

The Holiday Inn is gutted. The fine hotels along the sea are destroyed. In the abandoned hotels and swanky apartment buildings, refugees from the fighting in the south have squatted. Now the very poor and the very rich have the same view of the sea.

On the day we went over to the east side, a motorist was killed in the port section by a sniper. That area had been considered safe. Elsewhere what the newspaper called "leftist gunmen" shot up a street when some of their colleagues were arrested and put in jail.And in the commercial center rightist militias and Syrian troops exchanged fire. "Intermittent explosions can still be heard as we go to press," the newspaper reported.

At night you can hear the snipers. At night you can hear the bombs going off. At night Beirut goes off to its mad little war, a jewel of insanity twinkling on the Mediterraneum shore where Christians shoot Muslims and Muslims shoot Christians and everyone shoots storks.